ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, September 19, 2016

Teacher loses breach of contract action against school district

A now formerly tenured teacher with the Saint Paul Public School District http://www.spps.org/domain/1235 had several complaints lodged against him by students. The teacher was alleged to have been racially discriminative towards certain students and to have exhibited “other inappropriate conduct towards students.”

The story continued as follows: the district placed the teacher on paid administrative leave pending further investigations. The teacher obtained legal representation from a union attorney. The school’s investigations uncovered “additional issues” in relation to the teacher and notified the teacher that his termination would be proposed at a school board meeting. The teacher’s attorney advised him that he could (1) acquiesce in the termination, (2) negotiate a separation, or (3) attend a hearing.

The teacher subsequently testified that he felt like a gun had been placed to his head and that he had been forced to resign. Prior to the district taking any action against him, he sent a draft resignation letter to the district, requesting that in exchange for his resignation, he would be allowed to take his sick days, would receive a clean employment file, a letter of recommendation, and an opportunity to continue teaching driver’s education.

The dispute took some other twists and turns, but ended up with the teacher being upset that he could not continue as a driver’s ed teacher and attempting to withdraw a resignation letter that he had submitted. The district declined this. The teacher filed suit for duress and misrepresentation.

As for the duress, the teacher claimed that the district didn’t have the actual intent to fire him and no grounds to do so either. He also alleged that the district had promised not to report him if he resigned, which was a violation of Minn. Stat. § 122.A.20. He also claimed economic duress.

Strangely, economic duress is not recognized in Minnesota. Only “when an agreement is coerced by physical force or unlawful threats … which destroys the victim’s free will and compels him[/her] to comply with some demand of the party exerting the coercion” may suit lie. Bond v. Charlson, 374 N.W.2d 423, 428 (Minn. 1985); Wise v. Midtown Motors, 42 N.W.2d 4040, 407 (1950).

As for the regular duress, the court found that the teacher could not demonstrate that his free will had been destroyed. The court found that doing so requires more than “a scintilla of evidence” and that the teacher simply had not presented enough evidence of any wrongdoing by the district. The court also emphasized the fact that the teacher was represented by and received counsel from a union attorney skilled in these very matters. The court found no misrepresentations made by the school district.

Intimidating procedures or not: if one wishes to retain a chance to keep a job even in times of severe allegations, it becomes necessary to stand by one’s rights at all times until, perhaps the bitter end. The duress claim does indeed seem very weak here - almost fabricated after the fact.

What seems more surprising is the fact that Minnesota does not recognize economic duress. In times when the employment situation for many is still not the easiest (understatement), that’s a tough limitation on the legal rights of employees. This is exacerbated by the fact that employees have recognized property interests in both their jobs and teaching licenses. But of course, “where there’s smoke, there’s [often] fire.” At least in this case, it does seem that there was underlying wrongdoing by the teacher, so it’s a bit difficult to feel too sorry for him as well.

The case is Olmsted v. Saint Paul Public Schools, 2016 WL 4073494.

September 19, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Government Contracting, True Contracts | Permalink

Political Ads, Free Speech, and Tortious Interference with Contracts

An interesting recent case out of Texas, Deuell v. Texas Right to Life Committee, Inc., No. 01-15-00617-CV (behind paywall), deals with political advertisements, cease-and-desist letters, First Amendment free speech rights, and yes, contract. 

In the case, Deuell was a candidate for state senate. Texas Right to Life Committee (TRLC) ran some radio ads stating, among other things, "Bob Deuell sponsored a bill to give even more power to . . .  hospital panels over life and death for our ailing family members. Bob Deuell turned his back on life and on disabled patients." Deuell's lawyers sent cease-and-desist letters to the radio stations stating that the ads were defamatory and "respectfully demand[ing]" that the radio stations cease airing the ads. The radio stations, upon receipt of the letters, contacted TRLC and told it they were suspending the ads. TRLC then produced a new advertisement that the radio stations found acceptable to air, and also contracted "for additional airtime to compensate for the lost advertising time." TRLC then sued Deuell for tortious interference with contract and sought recovery of the amount it expended to produce the new ad and buy more airtime. Deuell moved to dismiss, arguing that the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) protected his cease-and-desist letter as free speech and that TRLC's allegations were not sufficient to overcome this. 

The court disagreed and denied the motion to dismiss. The court found that TRLC had adequately alleged the existence of contracts with the radio stations and that the cease and desist letters were "clear and specific evidence" (the relevant standard under the TCPA) that Deuell had intentionally and willfully interfered with these contracts that proximately caused TRLC to suffer the damages it alleged. The TCPA and Deuell's free speech rights therefore did not operate to prohibit TRLC's cause of action. 

Deuell did attempt to argue other things, including that TRLC's ads were illegal under the Texas Election Code, rendering TRLC's contracts with the radio stations to run the ads illegal contracts that could not result in tortious interference, as "a defendant cannot be held liable for tortiously interfering with an illegal contract." The court concluded, however, that there was no basis for declaring the contract illegal because the section of the Texas Election Code at issue had actually been declared unconstitutional.

There was a dissent in this case that would have held that Deuell's cease-and-desist letter implicated free speech rights under the TCPA and that TRLC did not provide the "clear and specific evidence" that would permit its case to survive in the face of those free speech implications. 

September 19, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 16, 2016

Contracting by Robots

A British start-up company called Luminance, which is also the name of its flagship due diligence analysis, “promises” to read documents and speed up the legal process around contracting, “potentially cutting out some lawyers.” (See here and here).

Luminance says that its software “understands language the way humans do, in volumes and at speeds that humans will never achieve. It provides an immediate and global overview of any company, picking out warning signs without needing any instruction.” Really? When I was working in the language localization things more than a decade ago, I heard the same promises then… but they never come to fruition. We’ll see how this program fares.

The software is said to be “trained by legal experts.” Talk about personification of an almost literary-style. We see the same trend in the United States, though. Just think about phone and internet programs that pretend to be your “assistant” and use phrases such as “Hi, my name is [so-and-so], and I’m going to help you today…”

Meanwhile, if a law firm used software to analyze documents, would it not be subject to legal malpractice if it did not discover contracting or other issues that a human would have, in this country at least? It would seem so… and for that reason alone perhaps also be a breach of contract unless clients were made aware that cost-cutting measures include having computers analyze documents that attorneys normally do.

September 16, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, In the News, Labor Contracts, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Weekly Top Ten SSRN Contracts Downloads (September 16, 2016)

A day late this week, but just as good as (or better than!) ever:

Top10-speech bubble


SSRN Top Downloads For SSRN Logo (small)
Contracts & Commercial Law eJournal

Rank Downloads Paper Title
1 313 Choice of Forum Agreements Under the Brussels I Recast and Under the Hague Convention: Coherences and Clashes
Matthias Weller
EBS Universität für Wirtschaft und Recht
2 160 The Puzzle of PDVSA Bond Prices
Paolo Colla, Anna Gelpern and G. Mitu Gulati
Bocconi University - Department of Finance, Georgetown University Law Center and Duke University School of Law
3 160 The Myth of Free
John M. Newman
University of Memphis - Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law
4 134 Sizing up Private Law
Andrew S. Gold and Henry E. Smith
DePaul University College of Law and Harvard Law School
5 97 Causa and Consideration – A Comparative Overview
Dimitar Stoyanov
New Bulgarian University, Department of Law
6 89 Are Validation Notices Valid? An Empirical Evaluation of Consumer Understanding of Debt Collection Validation Notices
Jeff Sovern and Kate E. Walton
St. John's University - School of Law and St. John's University - Department of Psychology
7 87 Discussion Draft of a Directive on Online Intermediary Platforms
Christoph Busch, Gerhard Dannemann, Hans Schulte-Nölke, Aneta Wiewiórowska-Domagalska and Fryderyk Zoll
University of Osnabrück - European Legal Studies Institute, Humboldt University of Berlin - Faculty of Law, European Legal Studies Institute Osnabrueck / Radboud University Nijmegen, Universität Osnabrück - European Legal Studies Institute and Universität Osnabruck
8 82 Consumer Protection in the Age of Big Data
Max N. Helveston
DePaul University - College of Law
9 82 Coverage Information in Insurance Law
Daniel Schwarcz
University of Minnesota Law School
10 79 Will the Supreme Court Agree with the NLRB that Pre-Dispute Employment Arbitration Provisions Containing Class and Collective Action Waivers in Both Judicial and Arbitral Forums Violate the National Labor Relations Act – Whether There is an Opt-Out or Not?
Christine Neylon O'Brien
Boston College - Carroll School of Management

 

SSRN Top Downloads For SSRN Logo (small)
Law & Society: Private Law - Contracts eJournal

Rank Downloads Paper Title
1 313 Choice of Forum Agreements Under the Brussels I Recast and Under the Hague Convention: Coherences and Clashes
Matthias Weller
EBS Universität für Wirtschaft und Recht
2 196 Trophy Hunting Contracts: Unenforceable for Reasons of Public Policy
Myanna F. Dellinger
University of South Dakota Law School
3 160 The Myth of Free
John M. Newman
University of Memphis - Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law
4 97 Causa and Consideration – A Comparative Overview
Dimitar Stoyanov
New Bulgarian University, Department of Law
5 86 The Role of Contract: Stewart Macaulay's Lessons from Practice
Brian Bix
University of Minnesota Law School
6 82 Coverage Information in Insurance Law
Daniel Schwarcz
University of Minnesota Law School
7 76 The Expanding Circle of Contract Law
Jan M. Smits
Maastricht University Faculty of Law - Maastricht European Private Law Institute (M-EPLI)
8 55 Ordinary Contract Principles
Robert A. Hillman
Cornell Law School
9 53 Evolution or Intelligent Design? The Variation in Pari Passu Clauses
Stephen J. Choi, G. Mitu Gulati and Robert E. Scott
New York University School of Law, Duke University School of Law and Columbia University - Law School
10 52 The Enforceability of Escalation Clauses Providing for Negotiations in Good Faith Under English Law
Oliver Krauss
Latham & Watkins

September 16, 2016 in Recent Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Scholarship alert: the use of virtual property in secured credit transactions

From Christopher Odinet, a friend of the blog: In the past several years the growth of virtual property in today’s economy has been explosive. The everyday use of virtual assets ranging from Twitter and Facebook to YouTube and virtual world accounts is nearly absolute. Indeed, by one account Americans check social media over 17 times per day. Further, a growing number of savvy virtual entrepreneurs are reporting incomes in the six and seven figure range, derived solely from their online businesses. Nevertheless, although the commercial world has come to embrace these newfound markets, commercial law has done a poor job of keeping up. Scholars have argued that laws governing everything from taxation, to bankruptcy, to privacy rights have not kept pace with our ever-changing virtual world. And nowhere is this truer than in the law of secured credit. Doubtlessly virtual property has come to represent significant wealth and importance, yet its value as a source of leveraged capital remains, in large part, untapped. This unrealized potential is not without good reason; the law — specifically Article 9 of the UCC and the law of property more broadly — suffers from a number of deficiencies and anomalies that make the use of virtual property in secured credit transactions not only overly complex and expensive, but almost entirely untenable. This Article shines light on these shortcomings, and, in doing so, advances a number of guiding principles and specific legislative recommendations, all geared toward a reformation of the law of secured credit in virtual property.

See entire article here.

September 14, 2016 | Permalink

The Great Nut Caper

 Blanched pistachios

I'm cheating a little because, while this case has a breach of contract claim in it, it doesn't really have anything interesting to say about contract law, mostly because the claim fails because the complaint didn't identify any contract, any terms to the contract, or any facts about the formation of the contract. 

But this case out of the Northern District of New York, Golub Corp. v. Sandell Transp., Inc., 1:15-CV-0848 (LEK/CFH) (behind paywall), has an amazing set of facts relayed by the judge in a playful way, and sometimes you just want to read about a good pistachio heist, you know? 

Because yes, that's what happened in this case. Golub in New York ordered some pistachios from Wonderful in California. Sandell was arranged to ship the pistachios. Sandell sought to subcontract out the job by posting on an industry job board and hiring a company called GM EXPRESS. In the court's words: 

But appearances can be deceiving, and it turns out that "GM EXPRESS" was not actually GM EXPRESS. Unknown to Sandell, the identity of GM EXPRESS had been stolen by criminals who were set on pilfering Golub's pistachio shipment. . . . In this shell game of trucking companies, the pistachio thieves provided Sandell with stolen yet still valid bona fides, including insurance information, tractor and trailer license plate numbers, and a driver's license number (which Sandell claims was valid despite its conspicuously sequential numbering of B7890123). . . . Through this scheme, Sandell and Wonderful would become the thieves' unwitting insiders, happily loading the nuts directly onto the getaway vehicle.

As I said, the breach of contract claim doesn't amount to much in this case, but I enjoyed reading this opinion nonetheless and felt I had to pass it on, so you too can now ponder the disappearing truck of pistachios whose fate remains unknown. 

September 14, 2016 in Commentary, Food and Drink, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 12, 2016

Ordering Subject to Seller's Terms and Conditions Makes You Subject to Seller's Terms and Conditions (Even If You Claim You Never Saw Them)

 

Blueberries in market, close-up.jpg
By atul666 from Portland, USA - blueberries, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4112199

A recent case out of Michigan, Naturipe Foods, LLC v. Siegel Egg. Co., No. 327172, affirmed a high six-figure jury verdict against Siegel Egg Co. in the case of an alleged breach of contract over blueberries. Naturipe sent Siegel an offer to sell Siegel blueberries. Siegel specified in writing on the received offer that the blueberries in question were to be Grade A. Siegel than signed the offer. Underneath the line provide for Siegel's signature (where Siegel in fact signed) was the pre-printed phrase, "Subject to Seller's Terms and Conditions." Naturipe sent Siegel two shipments of the blueberries ordered. The blueberries, according to Siegel, were not Grade A. Siegel therefore never paid for the blueberries it received nor did it ever order the rest of the blueberries that were supposed to be shipped under the contract. So Naturipe sued and won over $700,000 in damages, costs, and fees after a jury trial. 

On appeal here, Siegel's main argument centered around the trial court's decision that Naturipe's terms and conditions did indeed apply to the contract. The terms and conditions at issue specified that Siegel's only remedies for breach of the contract were replacement of the blueberries in question or a credit of the price paid for those blueberries. Furthermore, Siegel was required under the terms and conditions to provide Naturipe with thirty days' notice of any breach of contract. Siegel failed to provide notice and sought cancellation of the entire contract as its remedy, in violation of these terms and conditions. 

However, Siegel argued, Naturipe's terms and conditions should not have been considered part of the contract between the parties binding on Siegel because, according to Seigel, it was never given a copy of the terms and conditions, nor were they ever explained to Siegel. But, the court said, it was Siegel's duty to ask for an explanation and obtain a copy of the terms and conditions, because they were referenced in the offer Siegel signed. Therefore, Siegel was on notice that there were other contractual obligations in play and Siegel should have asked what those were. The court noted that Siegel had annotated the offer to require Grade A blueberries, and so was plainly capable of crossing out the "Subject to Seller's Terms and Conditions" phrase if it had so desired. Because it failed to, the court found that it was clear and unambiguous that the parties intended their contract to be subject to those terms and conditions. 

I'm sure Siegel probably never gave a second thought, either at the time it was ordering or the time it received the shipments, to Naturipe's terms and conditions. That said, this case stands as a lesson that it's probably always a good policy to call someone up when you're dissatisfied with the product they have provided you. You don't necessarily have to know the law to give people an opportunity to cure; sometimes it seems like it could, in most circumstances, be the most efficient first option. 

September 12, 2016 in Commentary, Food and Drink, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Strongarming Car Renters to Buy Insurance

In an 8/27 article, the New York Times (paid access only) reports how Payless Car Rental, owned by Avis Budget, basically forces at least some of its customers to buy personal liability insurance whether or not they want it. Here’s how the story reports it done – well worth repeating on this website to show the blatant disregard for contract law displayed by Payless Car Rental: Images

A client states repeatedly to the car rental company that he or she does not want insurance. When returning the car after the rental period is over, guess what shows up on the receipt: of course, the declined insurance – in one case $222. When the renter complains, the car rental agency representative snatches the contract that had been initialed by the renter, who apparently thought he or she indicate that they did not want the insurance. Instead, although orally and repeatedly stating that, the initials indicated that he or she did want the insurance (fine print probably not read by renter at airport counter).

ImagesAfter not getting the reimbursement requested, he or she disputed the charge with credit card provider American Express. The amount was refunded, the renter thought… until Payless sent a letter titled “Debit notice” which indicated that the amount would now be sent to collection by a company located on, I kid you not, “32960 Collection Center Drive, Chicago, Ill.” The problem with that is that no such address exists! Try in Google Maps. At least I and the New York Times reporter could not bring it up.

Payless also told the renter that if he or she did not react, his/her “rental privileges” would be suspended(!). Not sure why they would think that their renter would ever want to rent from that company again…

A Payless PR representative did not, when contacted about this incident, offer any explanation or apologies. She simply stated that the issue had been resolved and that “we will reinforce with our associates … the importance of ensuring that our customers clearly understand which services and options they are selecting.” It seems like they should also train their associates to accept the contractual choices then made by the customers.

September 10, 2016 in In the News, Miscellaneous, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Weekly Top Ten SSRN Contracts Downloads (September 8, 2016)

Top10DeskSign

 

SSRN Top Downloads For SSRN Logo (small)
Contracts & Commercial Law eJournal

Rank Downloads Paper Title
1 289 Choice of Forum Agreements Under the Brussels I Recast and Under the Hague Convention: Coherences and Clashes
Matthias Weller
EBS Universität für Wirtschaft und Recht
2 213 The Mystery of Mutual Insurers in Lawyers Professional Liability Insurance
Tom Baker and Rick Swedloff
University of Pennsylvania Law School and Rutgers Law School
3 187 Trophy Hunting Contracts: Unenforceable for Reasons of Public Policy
Myanna F. Dellinger
University of South Dakota Law School
4 156 The Puzzle of PDVSA Bond Prices
Paolo Colla, Anna Gelpern and G. Mitu Gulati
Bocconi University - Department of Finance, Georgetown University Law Center and Duke University School of Law
5 120 Sizing up Private Law
Andrew S. Gold and Henry E. Smith
DePaul University College of Law and Harvard Law School
6 90 Causa and Consideration – A Comparative Overview
Dimitar Stoyanov
New Bulgarian University, Department of Law
7 88 Are Validation Notices Valid? An Empirical Evaluation of Consumer Understanding of Debt Collection Validation Notices
Jeff Sovern and Kate E. Walton
St. John's University - School of Law and St. John's University - Department of Psychology
8 80 Sovereign Debt: Now What?
Anna Gelpern
Georgetown University Law Center
9 92 Form and Substance in Equitable Remedies
Stephen A. Smith
McGill University - Faculty of Law
10 141 The Myth of Free
John M. Newman
University of Memphis - Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law

 

SSRN Top Downloads For SSRN Logo (small)
Law & Society: Private Law - Contracts eJournal

Rank Downloads Paper Title
1 289 Choice of Forum Agreements Under the Brussels I Recast and Under the Hague Convention: Coherences and Clashes
Matthias Weller
EBS Universität für Wirtschaft und Recht
2 187 Trophy Hunting Contracts: Unenforceable for Reasons of Public Policy
Myanna F. Dellinger
University of South Dakota Law School
3 141 The Myth of Free
John M. Newman
University of Memphis - Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law
4 92 Form and Substance in Equitable Remedies
Stephen A. Smith
McGill University - Faculty of Law
5 90 Causa and Consideration – A Comparative Overview
Dimitar Stoyanov
New Bulgarian University, Department of Law
6 85 The Role of Contract: Stewart Macaulay's Lessons from Practice
Brian Bix
University of Minnesota Law School
7 76 Coverage Information in Insurance Law
Daniel Schwarcz
University of Minnesota Law School
8 68 Justice Scalia's Jiggery-Pokery in Federal Arbitration Law
David S. Schwartz
University of Wisconsin Law School
9 63 The 2016 Rules of the Australian Centre for International Commercial Arbitration: Towards Further ‘Cultural Reform’
Malcolm Holmes, Luke R. Nottage and Robert Tang
Eleven Wentworth, University of Sydney - Faculty of Law and Allen & Overy LLP
10 61 Taking Stewart Macaulay and Hugh Collins Seriously
John Gava
Adelaide Law School

September 8, 2016 in Recent Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Ambiguous Insurance Policy Blocks Insurer's Summary Judgment Motion

I really like this Eastern District of Pennsylvania case, Ionata v. Allstate Insurance Company, Civil Action No. 15-6561, because I think it illustrates really nicely the contractual ambiguity at issue and the consequences of that ambiguity. I might use it as an example in class. 

Ionata and her then-husband bought the property at issue together and it was insured with a standard Allstate Homeowner's Policy, which Ionata kept current through the relevant time period. In 2011, Ionata and her husband divorced. Ionata continued to use the house as her mailing address and also continued to keep her stuff there but seems to have slept on a nightly basis somewhere else. In 2014, Ionata had allowed a close family friend to live in the house. During this time period, the house was destroyed by a fire. 

The policy covered a "Dwelling," defined as a building "where you reside."Allstate argued that residence required "physical occupation" of the house by the policyholder. Therefore, it argued, the house was no longer covered by the homeowner's policy because Ionata was no longer "residing" in it. 

The court noted that Allstate's argument made perfect sense in isolation, but it was inconsistent with other clauses within the policy. So, for instance, the policy contained a clause that permitted the house to "be vacant or unoccupied." As the court succinctly put it, "Logically, it is difficult to reconcile Allstate's position that the policyholder must be living on the premises with a clause that provides the Property may be vacant or unoccupied for any length of time." 

Nor was this the only clause that raised the ambiguity. There was another clause that explicitly permitted the occasional renting of the entire property for residential purposes. If a policyholder was allowed to rent the entire property to others, then the policyholder couldn't simultaneously be required to live in the property herself. 

The court therefore denied Allstate's motion for summary judgment, calling out "the artificial and often arcane structure and language of insurance policies" in making the decision. 

September 7, 2016 in Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

KCON XII Keynote Event: O'Melveny on the LaGuardia Project - Register and Book for February 24-25, 2017

Southwestern-law-school-logo  KCON12-Logo

Our friends at Southwestern Law School are ramping up the next edition of this blog's favorite conference, The 12th Annual International Conference on Contracts, better known as KCON XII, to be held on February 24-25, 2017 at the Art Deco Landmark in Los Angeles.

O'Melveny LogoAlready on the schedule for this year's conference are two keynote presentations. The first event will be on Friday, February 24, when O'Melveny & Myers LLP will give a panel presentation entitled, Drafting Complex Contracts: Behind the Scenes of the LaGuardia Project. The high-stakes legal issues involved should make for an intriguing and instructive tale of contract law:

O’Melveny represented the LaGuardia Gateway Partners consortium in its winning bid to assume operational control of New York LaGuardia Airport’s central terminal building and to build, finance, operate, and maintain a replacement terminal.  O’Melveny represented LGP throughout the two-and-a-half year bidding process for the project, as well as during the exclusive negotiation period to consummate the transaction that followed.  The US$4 billion project is the largest public-private partnership to be undertaken anywhere in the world.

Booking your hotel early at the  Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza is especially important to ensure that you have incredible accommodations at a discounted rate in the conference block of rooms.

In addition to the special hotel deals, conference registration is also now open for business. If you register for KCON XII now, you can get the early-bird rate of $250 for conference registration.

Stay tuned for more KCON XII information in the coming days, including information on another keynote event, as well as the opportunities for you to submit a proposal for presentation or panel.

September 6, 2016 in Conferences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Vast Majority of Consumers Prefer Court Procedure over Arbitration

Vast Majority of Consumers Prefer Court Procedure over Arbitration

We have discussed arbitration clauses in this blog several times. Now, a Pew Charitable Trust survey of more than 1,000 individuals shows that 95% of consumers prefer judge or jury trials regarding questionable bank fees and similar practices over arbitration clauses. 89% want to be able to join a class action lawsuit. At the same time, no less than 93% of banks include jury (but not bench) trial waivers in their checking account agreements.

What about the argument that the only thing that consumers get out of this is higher fees and fewer services to cover increased litigation costs? First, consumers are not prohibited from choosing arbitration, it’s the option to have class action suits that is at issue here. And as the Los Angeles Times reported, “if banks keep their noses clean, they won’t end up in court” in the first place. Besides, it’s not so much consumers that choose to litigate, businesses file four times as many lawsuits as individuals. Maybe this is for good reason: arbitrators ruled in favor of banks and credit card companies 94% of the time in disputes with California consumers.  Maybe it is not: since banks are the ones who pay for the arbitration process, a recurring concern is that arbitrators may be reluctant to find against the banks.

Of course, class action lawsuits is the only feasible way for consumers to have their legal rights vindicated because of the small individual amounts involved. For the banks, however, this is big business – literally: In April, the Supreme Court let stand a decision that Wells Fargo had deliberately arranged checking-account payments in order to “maximize the number of overdrafts” resulting in fees of $25-35. http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/13-16195.pdf

September 6, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 5, 2016

More on Alleged Property Shark Amtrak

A few days ago, I posted a blog here on Amtrak raising the rent on backyard lots neighboring Amtrak's railroad lines in New York.  The rent in some cases went up by 100,000% (!) according to the website of Congressman Joseph Crowley

Professor Bruckner posed the relevant question of whether the now hotly contested leases are truly new leases or the renegotiation of existing ones.  I've been trying to find out, but not having seen the actual letter from Amtrak (yet), I've dug through news reports and website of legislators.  This is the upshot as best as I can find out right now: It looks like Amtrak is upping the price on _existing_ leases after having had very low prices for years.  See, e.g., these statements: "For decades, Amtrak has leased the property underneath the trusses to homeowners for a nominal fee which releases the agency from the burden of maintaining the premises. Residents were given a 30-day notice to accept an unconscionable annual rent increase – in some cases as much as 100,000 percent or tens of thousands of dollars" and "[i]n a letter addressed to homeowners, Amtrak argues that a review of the lease and the premises it covers, indicates the lease is substantially undervalued. For some, the rent will go up from $25 annually to over $26,000 annually. Failure to approve the new rental amount would result in the termination of the lease 30 days from the notice."

To me, that does indeed seem if not outright unconscionable, then certainly in violation of reasonable contractual expectations and the contractual terms what appears to be an already existing contract. 

As mentioned, Amtrak does have a good argument in its prices having been exceptionally low for decades, but perhaps market prices should be introduced over time as the lessees get replaced over time with the existing leases somehow being grandfathered in?  Granted, the turnover in the NYC real estate market may  not be high in the case of lucrative deals, but on the other hand, nobody lives in any home forever.  Underlying this story does seem to be the fact that Amtrak got upset not so much about the low rents per se, but the fact that some renters were making profits off them.

September 5, 2016 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, In the News, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

One-Year Nationwide Non-Compete Found Reasonable in Organic Product Market

I always think it's interesting to see how courts judge the reasonableness of non-competition provisions. In this recent case out of the Eastern District of New York, Grillea v. United Natural Foods, Inc., 16-CV-3505 (SJF)(SIL) (behind paywall), a judge declined to preliminarily enjoin the employer from enforcing the former employee's non-compete and blocking him from accepting his new position, finding that the former employee had not shown a likelihood of success that the non-compete wasn't enforceable. 

The plaintiff and former employee was one of the top executives at the defendant, United Natural Foods. He had signed a non-competition agreement that prohibited him from working anywhere in the United States for one year for any of United's direct competitors. After a few years, United terminated the plaintiff's employment. There was a lot of negotiation about when the termination would take place, which stock options were going to vest, which benefits would keep accruing, how the plaintiff would be categorized, etc., but for purposes of this blog entry, eventually the termination became effective and the plaintiff left United's employ. 

Plaintiff received a job offer from a division of another company called Threshold. Plaintiff spoke to people at United about the job offer. They expressed concern that it would violate his non-compete. Plaintiff said he disagreed because he would be dealing with manufacturing, which was not what his responsibilities had been at United. Plaintiff put people at United down as references and Threshold called and spoke to them. They claimed they informed Threshold they thought what plaintiff was doing was a conflict of interest. 

This dispute followed, with plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction that United not enforce the non-compete so that plaintiff can accept his new position. The court, however, denied plaintiff's motion. The court found that the one-year time period of the non-compete was reasonable and also that the fact that it had no geographic limitation was reasonable because United is a nationwide company (the geographic limitation thing was important to plaintiff's argument because he was switching coasts for the new job). 

What I found most interesting about this case was that the judge emphasized several times that United had stated that the non-compete only prevented plaintiff from working for twenty-nine companies (of which Threshold was one). That was clearly a detail that was compelling to the court. 

September 5, 2016 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Register Now: Thursday, September 8 – Web-Based Panel Discussion on Microsoft v. US

From our friends at the ASIL-IL Tech IG:

On July 14th, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the Microsoft v. US  case that the U.S. government cannot use a warrant issued under the Stored Communications Act to compel Microsoft to disclose the contents of emails stored on a server in Ireland – because the pertinent “seizure” of data would take place in Ireland, and the Stored Communications Act does not have extraterritorial effect.  Instead, the U.S. government must rely on the lengthy Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) process to obtain the data from the Irish authorities.  
 
Commentators disagree whether this decision is a win for privacy, has significant public safety implications, serves as an incentive for data localization mandates, or is a boon for the U.S. technology industry.  Many argue that Congressional action is necessary. A legislative proposal by the Department of Justice would allow allies like the United Kingdom to circumvent the MLAT process when seeking data that is within their jurisdiction but located in the United States.  
 
The American Society of International Law Interest Group on International Law and Technology (ILTechIG) and George Washington University School of Law will host a web-based panel discussion on this significant case on Thursday, September 8th from 12:00 noon-1:30 EST.

Speakers will include Jennifer Daskal, Assistant Professor of Law at American University School of Law; Richard Downing, Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section of the Department of Justice; and James Garland, a partner at Covington & Burling, who has represented Microsoft in the Second Circuit litigation.
 
Registration is required on the ASIL site under "Events" in order to receive sign-in details for the call.  There is no cost for participation.

September 5, 2016 | Permalink

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Egregious Price Increases

You heard about Epipen, the “price of which has climbed sixfold over the last several years. At drug price-comparison website GoodRx, the cheapest price today is $614 for a package containing two, or more than $300 per EpiPen, up from about $100 for two.”

Now there’s Amtrak. The company just raised the prices for renting backyard spaces underneath the Hell Gate Bridge in New York from, in one case, $25 to $25,560 a year (that’s not a typo) and, in another, from $50 to $45,000 a year. Images

The homeowners that rent these “additional” spaces have been given 30 days to accept the new leases or else give up the land. Some use it for recreational purposes but others rent it out as parking lots, which has allegedly caused Amtrak to reconsider these contracts. The company has confirmed the rent hikes, stating that “some lease holders have not seen an increase in more than 70 years” and that renters can still expect to pay only “a fraction (less than 1 percent) of the fair market rental rates.” Amtrak will be “working with each person individually to determine the exact terms of their lease.”

Is this fair? Many of the renters have decks, pools, and established plants on the land. They also clear snow, remove falling bricks and other debris from the land. They’ve been able to enjoy the land for years, perhaps creating a reasonable “course of performance” expectation that the rents would not be increased to such a high extent.

On the other hand, the rent is exceptionally low for New York and has not been increased for many decades. Then again, if the intent of these contracts was for them to serve mainly recreational purposes, what about people that now convert the land into commercial use (parking lots, of all things)? Does that matter?

This case raises interesting issues of contract interpretation, unilateral contract modification, good faith obligations by both parties, etc. It seems to me that Amtrak might, depending on the wording of these contracts, be able to now increase the rent somewhat, but to the extent done here, the intent seems to be an arguably contractually impermissible penalty rather than, perhaps, a good-faith renegotiation of contract terms.

Hat tip to Shubha Ghosh for alerting my attention to this issue.

September 3, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 2, 2016

KCON XII in Los Angeles - Book at the Special Hotel Rate and Save February 24-25 on Your Calendar!

Our friends at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles are ramping up the next edition of this blog's favorite conference, The 12th Annual International Conference on Contracts. Or as we lovingly call it:

KCON12-Logo

KCON XII is shaping up to be one of the best gatherings of contracts scholars and teachers to date, but that is only possible with your attendance and participation. Here is the organizers' conference description:

Set in a meticulously restored Art Deco landmark at the heart of Los Angeles, the two-day conference is designed to offer an experience that combines novel ideas, cutting edge practical knowledge, and fun. KCON affords contracts scholars, teachers at all experience levels (including those preparing to enter the academy and those whose primary teaching appointment is not in a law school), and practicing attorneys an opportunity to present, discuss, and receive feedback on a wide range of contract-related scholarship and issues. Articles recently published or accepted-but-not-yet published, works in progress, thought experiments, pedagogical innovations, as well as practice-based cases/problems are all welcome. The conference also provides an eagerly anticipated annual opportunity to network with colleagues, potential collaborators, and mentors from around the country and other parts of the world.

Omni-los-angeles-hotel-exteriorBooking your hotel early at the fantastic Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza (pictured at left) is especially important to ensure that you have incredible accommodations at a discounted rate in the conference block of rooms.

In addition to the special hotel deals, conference registration is also now open for business. If you register for KCON XII now, you can get the early-bird rate of $250 for conference registration.

Stay tuned for more KCON XII information in the coming days, including a reveal of the keynote presentations, as well as the opportunities for you to submit a proposal for presentation or panel.

September 2, 2016 in Conferences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Weekly Top Ten SSRN Contracts Downloads (September 1, 2016)

Special kudos this week to ContractsProf Blog Editor-in-Chief Myanna Dellinger for making both of this week's Top Ten lists! Now, without further ado:

TopTen Stamp-808x455

 

SSRN Top Downloads For SSRN Logo (small)
Contracts & Commercial Law eJournal

Rank Downloads Paper Title
1 238 Choice of Forum Agreements Under the Brussels I Recast and Under the Hague Convention: Coherences and Clashes
Matthias Weller
EBS Universität für Wirtschaft und Recht
2 211 The Mystery of Mutual Insurers in Lawyers Professional Liability Insurance
Tom Baker and Rick Swedloff
University of Pennsylvania Law School and Rutgers Law School
3 173 Trophy Hunting Contracts: Unenforceable for Reasons of Public Policy
Myanna F. Dellinger
University of South Dakota Law School
4 153 The Puzzle of PDVSA Bond Prices
Paolo Colla, Anna Gelpern and G. Mitu Gulati
Bocconi University - Department of Finance, Georgetown University Law Center and Duke University School of Law
5 128 The Moral Impermissibility of Efficient Breach
Adam Rigoni
Arizona State University (ASU) - Barrett, the Honors College
6 116 Sizing up Private Law
Andrew S. Gold and Henry E. Smith
DePaul University College of Law and Harvard Law School
7 94 The Myth of Free
John M. Newman
University of Memphis - Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law
8 87 Are Validation Notices Valid? An Empirical Evaluation of Consumer Understanding of Debt Collection Validation Notices
Jeff Sovern and Kate E. Walton
St. John's University - School of Law and St. John's University - Department of Psychology
2016
9 86 Form and Substance in Equitable Remedies
Stephen A. Smith
McGill University - Faculty of Law
10 82 Causa and Consideration – A Comparative Overview
Dimitar Stoyanov
New Bulgarian University, Department of Law

 


SSRN Top Downloads For SSRN Logo (small)
Law & Society: Private Law - Contracts eJournal

Rank Downloads Paper Title
1 239 Choice of Forum Agreements Under the Brussels I Recast and Under the Hague Convention: Coherences and Clashes
Matthias Weller
EBS Universität für Wirtschaft und Recht
2 173 Trophy Hunting Contracts: Unenforceable for Reasons of Public Policy
Myanna F. Dellinger
University of South Dakota Law School
3 128 The Moral Impermissibility of Efficient Breach
Adam Rigoni
Arizona State University (ASU) - Barrett, the Honors College
4 128 Does High Auditor Litigation Risk Discourage Corporate Innovation?
Mahfuz Chy and Ole-Kristian Hope
University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management, Students and University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management
5 94 The Myth of Free
John M. Newman
University of Memphis - Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law
6 86 Form and Substance in Equitable Remedies
Stephen A. Smith
McGill University - Faculty of Law
7 82 Causa and Consideration – A Comparative Overview
Dimitar Stoyanov
New Bulgarian University, Department of Law
8 78 The Role of Contract: Stewart Macaulay's Lessons from Practice
Brian Bix
University of Minnesota Law School
9 72 Coverage Information in Insurance Law
Daniel Schwarcz
University of Minnesota Law School
10 66 Justice Scalia's Jiggery-Pokery in Federal Arbitration Law
David S. Schwartz
University of Wisconsin Law School

September 1, 2016 in Recent Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Ownership of Steve Harvey's Comedy Tapes Is Ambiguous

Ambiguous contracts can be a nightmare to untangle, especially twenty years later. A recent case out of the Northern District of Texas, Cooper v. Harvey, Civil Action No. 3:14-CV-4152-B (behind paywall), illustrates just that. 

Steve Harvey, currently the host of "Family Feud," has been sued by Joseph Cooper over Harvey's attempts to curtail Cooper's use of performances Cooper taped at Harvey's comedy club in 1993. Cooper claims Harvey gave him permission to film the performances, paid Cooper to film them, and gave Cooper ownership of the videotapes and the right to use and display them. Since that time, Harvey and Cooper have had multiple disputes over the footage, most recently over Cooper's posting of some of it to YouTube. 

Harvey disputes Cooper's claim. He says that he paid Cooper to tape the performances so that Harvey could use them "as study material," and that he never granted Cooper ownership or any rights in the videotapes. Harvey alleges that Cooper uses the video footage as a type of blackmail, essentially, knowing that Harvey might find the material on the videotape embarrassing to have made public. 

This case isn't just he-said/he-said, in that there does appear to be an actual written contract between the parties, even if there is some debate whether or not Harvey ever signed it. At any rate, seeking summary judgment, Harvey argues that the written contract is ambiguous and that the court can therefore hear parol evidence as to whether the parties intended for Harvey to bargain away all of his rights to the work in question. Cooper, for his part, argues that the contract is unambiguous and that, according to its terms, bargaining away all of his rights is exactly what Harvey did. 

The court agreed with Harvey that the contract is ambiguous in whether Cooper or the Comedy House was intended to own the videos under the contract. But, turning to the parol evidence, the court found that nothing Harvey had put forth shed any light on Cooper's intent in entering into the contract. Harvey provided an affidavit that he did not intend the contract to convey his ownership rights but that didn't resolve what the parties' intent was when they signed the contract in 1993. Therefore, the court denied summary judgment on the breach of contract claim. 

Which seems like, in the end, this written contract is going to come down to he-said/he-said. 

August 31, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Film Clips, Recent Cases, Television, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 29, 2016

“Trophy hunting” contracts – unenforceable for reasons of public policy

Allow me to highlight my most recent article on the questionable ecosystem viability and contractual common law validity of so-called “trophy hunting” contracts. With these contracts, wealthy individuals in or from, often, the Global North contract for assistance in hunting rare animals for “sport.” Often, these hunts takes place in the Global South where targeted species include giraffes, rhinos, lions, and other vulnerable if not outright threatened or endangered species.  Images
A famous example of this is Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killing “Cecil the Lion” in 2015 causing widespread outcry in this country and around the world. Trophy hunting also takes place in the USA and Canada, where targeted animals include polar bears, grizzly bears, and big horn sheep.

Trophy hunting should be seen on the background of an unprecedented rate of species extinction caused by several factors. Some affected species are already gone; others are about to follow. Western black rhinoceroses, for example, are already considered to have become extinct in 2011.   The rest of the African rhinoceros population may follow suit within the next twenty years if not sufficiently protected. In the meantime, more than 1.2 million “trophies” of over 1,200 different kinds of animals were imported into the United States just between 2004 and 2015. In addition to the extinction problem, the practice may also have ecosystem impacts because, among many other factors, the trophies often stem from or consist of alpha animals.

UnknownOf course, no one is arguing that rare species should be driven to extinction, in fact, quite the opposite: both trophy hunters and those opposing the practice agree that such species should be conserved for the future. However, the question lies in how to do so. Some argue that trophy hunting creates not only highly needed revenue for some nations, but also brings more attention to the species conservation issue.

I argue that at least until there is much greater certainty than what is currently the case that the practice truly does help the species in the long run (and we don’t have much time for “the long run”!), legal steps must be taken against the trophy hunting. Even when positive law such as hunting laws and/or the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) do not address the issue (yet), common law courts may declare contracts that have proved to be “deleterious effect upon society as a whole,” “unsavory,” “undesirable,” “nefarious,” or “at war with the interests of society” unenforceable for reasons of public policy. Images-2

In the case of Cecil, African lions had been proposed for listing under the ESA when the animal was killed, but the listing did not take effect until a few months later. The case, others like it, and several studies demonstrate that a sufficient and sufficiently broad segment of the population have come to find the killing of very rare animals so reprehensible that common law courts can declare them unenforceable should litigation on the issue arise. This has been the case with many other contracts over time. The same has come to be the case with trophy hunting. As long as doubt exists as to the actual desirability of the practice from society’s point of view – not that of a select wealthy individuals – the precautionary principle of law calls for nations to err on the side of caution. The United States prescribes to this principle as well.

The article also analyzes how different values such as intrinsic and existence values should be taken into account in attempts to monetize the “value” of the practice. Instead of the here-and-now cash that may contribute to local economies (much revenue is also lost to corruption in some nations), other practices such as photo safaris are found by several studies to contribute more, especially in the long term. (Note that Walter Palmer paid a measly USD 50,000 for his contract with the landowner and local hunting guide).

Finally, the article draws in arguments under the public trust doctrine and the state ownership of wildlife doctrine. Ethically, these animals belong to all of us (or none of us). Images-1

Trying to save rare animals by shooting them simply flies in the face of common sense. It also very arguably violates notions of national and international law.

August 29, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Recent Scholarship, Science, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)